Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Six Months and Counting: What's Changed?

Once again, the 17th has come and gone, and it's now less than six months until the current "hard" date (2/17/09) on which analog broadcasting is scheduled to cease. This is the 29th of 35 planned monthly recaps of developments affecting the various players in this story. Despite the name of this blog I do cover some stories (like the growth of HD) that are not directly transition-related (but strike me as being of interest to transition-watchers). However, you'll notice that I have tightened the focus this time (and going forward), including dropping a whole section (MANUFACTURERS). For more on the reasons why, see my post regarding focus. I hope this results in updates that are easier to fit into your reading time.

That said, here's some of what happened (or was commented on) between 7/18 and 8/17 (with the occasional exception of a later story that just can't wait until next time). As is usual, major news sources for this update include Multichannel News, Engadget HD, TV Week, TWICE, Broadcasting & Cable and TVPredictions.com.

THE PUBLIC - It's now less than two weeks until noon on September 8th, when the first TV market (the Wilmington, N.C. area) transitions to digital-only broadcast TV (other than the PBS affiliate and one low-power station), five months ahead of everyone else. So what is the state of public awareness in Wilmington? Pretty good, it seems. As I pointed out in my August 8th Wilmington recap, Wilmington has (not surprisingly) been getting a lot of special attention from the FCC and others as well. More details on the accelerating FCC involvement can be found in this Multichannel News article. An example of the involvement of other parties is this converter-box giveaway sponsored by the Consumer Electronics Association to help nursing home residents (who don't qualify for coupons, as nursing homes are not "households" under the rules of the converter-box program). It looks like everything is being done to make sure there are no problems (which raises some questions as to Wilmington's value as a predictor of what will happen in all the places where everything possible isn't being done). One thing they are doing which actually is a great idea - instead of completely turning off their analog transmitters, they will instead (for several weeks) be running an information slide to explain what has happened and how viewers can get DTV. Having that everywhere, even for a shorter time, could considerably lower the potential for confusion on The Day. Participating stations also took part in a one-minute test on August 19th, whiich appears to have gone off without a hitch.

When evaluating the results, they might want to take into account a similar test recently conducted by KING in Seattle (link via Engadget HD). In addition to the people who could be expected to get a screenful of snow (analog TV owners with over-the-air reception), viewers with cable or satellite hooked up to their analog sets also were affected. The latter will be provided a downconverted digital signal by their provider after the switchover, so the interruption was misleading. A follow-up test on sister station KONG (not a joke, honest) has been put off for now.

As to the overall transition, a new survey from the Association of Public Television Stations (APTS) shows that while the percentage of OTA (over-the-air) viewers intending to buy a new TV or converter has climbed dramatically in the last couple of years (62 percent versus 28 percent in November '06), most have not done so. Let's hope they factor in the six weeks or so it takes for the coupons to arrive!

On the Public Service Announcement front, game-show legend Bob Barker has been enlisted for two spots, including a special one for the Wilmington area.

One thing the transition seems to be doing is helping TV sales weather the recession.

GOVERNMENT - In the last section, we mentioned the FCC's significant presence in the Wilmington area in prepartion for their early switchover. Of course, not everyone is going to get the kind of intense attention Wilmington has been getting lately. However, FCC Commissioners will be holding public events (one per market, I'm thinking) in 81 markets deemed to "most at risk" (the linked article has the schedule for the first 23 events). Not sure what, if anything, will be done for the other 100-some markets.

This time last month, the statistics page tracking the progress of the digital converter box program reported that as of 7/23 about 4.1 million of the roughly 19.9 million coupons issued so far (or just over 20%) had expired (compared to the almost 6.7 million that had actually been used). Updated figures for 8/20 show almost 7.0 million expired (30.3%) and 8.7 million redeemed (38.0%) out of 22.9 million issued. I've already speculated that the expiration figures might have something to do with retailers preferring to sell new TVs rather than the boxes the customer might have come in looking for, but this TWICE article points to another possible explanation - retailers report that they can't keep up with the "increasingly frantic" demand.

Still no new developments on the issue of reissuing coupons or extending expiration dates, as far as I know.

Meanwhile, the FCC is proposing something designed to help low-powered stations get the cash they need to go digital (voluntarily - they're not covered by the transition, which is why an analog pass-through feature is desirable in converter boxes), namely adding them to the "must-carry" requirements for cable companies. Given bandwidth constraints, you won't be surprised to hear that the cable industry doesn't care for this at all, and is challenging the FCC's authority in the matter. On the other hand, FCC Chairman Kevin Martin wants to make carriage requirements easier for small systems by exempting them from the "dual must carry" requirements (dual meaning analog and digital).

BROADCASTING - This last month saw a major acceleration in the number of local TV newscasts going HD. I count about 15, too many to list here, so these examples will have to do. I have seen different numbers posted in different places, but all sources now seem to agree that the number of local HD newscasts in HD has reached triple digits. But this is still a small fraction of the total local newscasts - given the tendency of HD newscasts to cluster (we just got a second one in Boston and are expecting a third soon), it's safe to say the majority of the 200-plus TV markets in this country still have none.

The national front saw action too, as CBS debuted a newscast whose first broadcast was marred by audio problems, and ABC (now the last nightly news holdout) announced a September 8 debut for World News with Charles Gibson in HD (but then jumped the gun - the broadcast actually debuted on August 25th).

HD has now been around enough to have covered several Olympics, and every time the coverage becomes more comprehensive. This time out, NBC went beyond the maximum use of their stable of channels (NBC, CNBC, USA and Universal HD) to add two extra channels for soccer and basketball.

PROGRAM PROVIDERS - The "arms race" to offer more HD channels continues apace. Like last month, there are a number of providers have added 10 or more channels. There was also a triple-digit add as Verizon FiOS debuted in New York City with exactly 100 channels (you can see the list here). DirecTV added 31 not too long after (bringing them up to 130), but when you consider how many of these adds were regional sports networks and PPV slots, the NYC FiOS lineup is still pretty competitive. It was certainly more than competitive with NYC incumbent provider Cablevision, which added 15 channels to bring them up to 60 (still very good for cable just about anywhere else). Verizon also continued to rollout double-digit adds elsewhere, and others who did likewise include Comcast, Charter and Time Warner Cable (TWC).

Dish, meanwhile, has upped the ante by promising 150 national channels by the end of '08, plus 1080p VOD titles and money-saving (if you don't want any SD channels) HD-only packages. Dish CEO Charlie Ergen's thoughts on their HD plans can be seen here. One thing they don't seem to be planning on is a merger with DirectTV, at least if you go by what DirecTV says. Another provider talking up their HD plans is AT&T.

Of course, there are other uses for increased bandwidth, such as faster internet. Charter and Cablevision are preparing for DOCSIS 3.0.

Keeping up with satellite and FiOS is hard enough for large operators, what about the small independents? This topic was explored at the Independent Show (sponsored jointly by the National Cable Television Cooperative and the American Cable Association). One speaker pointed out the importance of letting the audience know that despite the difference in raw channel count their most-wanted shows were in the lineup. Another session dealt with the challenges of co-ordinating with local broadcasters in preparation for the switchover.

HD NETWORKS - While the lineup expansions noted above are adding new eyeballs to many recently-launched channels (channels which had only been seen on satellite until now are finally finding homes on cable and telco lineups), I'm still surprised that there aren't more announcements of new entrants trying to get in on the action. In fact, the few new channel announcements I could find this time out are all overseas! These include an all-classical-music channel launching in Germany, a channel displaying art (from Shaw Cable in Canada) and the first HD channel for the United Arab Emirates. Interestingly enough, these are also entirely new channels. Have all the existing cable channels that want to go HD converted by now? I for one would love to see Turner Classic Movies (which is committed to showing its films in Original Aspect Ratio) in HD, as I feel it would be a perfect fit for the format. Unfortunately, their FAQ states that they have no timetable (as of 3/12/08) for achieving this goal (although they are exploring the possibility).

Let's move on to existing channels. Despite having an actual MTV HD channel (although it's just a placeholder with little or no HD content as yet), I've noticed in discussion threads that many posters still assume that MHD is the HD version of MTV (and have no interest in it for that reason). Perhaps this is why this particular all-music channel is renaming itself to Palladia on September 1st. They'll also be adding a new concert every Saturday and will also show rock movies every Thursday (both at 9 PM) - good news, considering the rerun-heavy nature of their current schedule. Speaking of rerun-heavy channels, Smithsonian (whose library makes MHD/Palladia's look vast in comparison) will also be adding a fair amount of new stuff.

That's all I have for now!

Monday, August 25, 2008

What's Up In Wilmington? It's Now Just TWO WEEKS to the Transition Test.

Today is August 25th, which means that there are only two weeks remaining until the Wilmington, N.C. area becomes the first TV market in the country to transition to digital-only broadcast TV (other than the PBS affiliate and one low-power station), five months ahead of the rest of the U.S.A.

The big story of the last week is the "soft test" that took place on Tuesday the 19th, in which four of the five participating stations shut off their analog signals for 60 seconds (although from previous reports it's more likely that they actually put up a "you need to get DTV" message). According to Broadcasting & Cable magazine, it went off without a hitch (I've expressed my reservations about 60-second tests in the past, but it's notable that there were no viewer calls). What's interesting is that I had to use a national source to find out how it went, since none of the sites for local media (print or broadcast) reported on it - I'm not there, so I obviously don't see all of what's printed or broadcast, but it's still interesting that that news did not have a higher priority.

I do have two stories that were reported by station WECT (including one I missed from last time). The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) is sending their "DTV Trekker" truck into town for a series of public-education events over the next week (linked article includes video). And WECT is sponsoring their own Digital Television Expo on Thursday the 28th, with local vendors showcasing their DTV wares.

I'll be back next Monday with the one-week-out report.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008


With less than six months to go before the completion of the U.S.A's digital transition, it's time to make some more adjustments to this blog's range of coverage. I've always included stuff (such as the progress of HD) that was not directly related to the transition, but which I thought would be of interest to transition-watchers. The result has been extremely long (by todays A.D.D. standards) monthly updates, and the fact is that some of this (such as just about everything hardware-related) is done much better by others.

I am currently at work on the 29th monthly update since I started the series with "34 Months and Counting". For more than two years, this blog has taken up the bulk of my free time, and I've been putting too many other things on hold for way too long. So, I'm hoping to get a little of that time back starting with the current update, and also make said updates a bit less of a slog to get through at the same time (and hopefully a bit more current as well). There's no way of knowing until I've done one whether I'll actually save a significant amount of time and space, but it's worth trying.

As for specifics, here's what's on the chopping block, and what's being kept, by section.

PUBLIC - No real change here. The public's awareness of and reaction to the transition is the heart of this story.

GOVERNMENT - Much of the non-transition related news in this section is going away. This includes issues such as net neutrality and congressional investigations of Kevin Martin's overall job performance. Transition-related matters such as the converter-box program will still be covered, as well as the "must carry" issue (which affects providers' bandwidth management).

BROADCASTERS - Retransmission-consent issues will no longer be covered. For the time being, I'll still be looking at the spread of HD programming (including local newscasts).

PROGRAM PROVIDERS - The struggles of various providers to manage their bandwidth to bring the ever-growing number of HD channels to their customers will still have a place here, but perhaps with a bit less detail as to who added what channel this month (actually, I've been moving in that direction the last couple of months). The endless lawsuits between provider A and provider B will get a lot less coverage, perhaps none at all (depends on the underlying issue). I'll be doing less on the statewide-franchising beat. And while digital technology has opened some interesting non-traditional options for getting our programming, you won't be seeing as much coverage of that either. In general, I'll be more picky.

HD NETWORKS - The general concept won't change much, but here's another area where I might be somewhat more choosy.

MANUFACTURERS - Here's the big change. I am dropping this section altogether. I am essentially not a hardware guy, which has made this section the hardest and longest to write. My main interests in writing this blog have been the sociopolitical aspects of the transition and the evolution of HD programming, not the technical details of the equipment that delivers said programming. With the conclusion of the Format War, I've come to realize that I'm just not all that interested in the fortunes of all the competing display technologies, and while the struggle of Blu-ray vs. DVD still has my attention, here's another area that is covered much better by others.

So, expect the next update to be somewhat shorter. I'm not sure whether this one I'm working on now will get out sooner than usual (with the whole Wilmington thing and its associated posts going on at the same time), but starting next month I expect to come out at least a couple of days closer to the 17th, at least until things start to get really hot (which I think would be around the end of the year).

Monday, August 18, 2008

What's Up In Wilmington? It's Now Just THREE WEEKS to the Transition Test.

Today is August 18th, which means that there are only three weeks remaining until the Wilmington, N.C. area becomes the first TV market in the country to transition to digital-only broadcast TV (other than the PBS affiliate and one low-power station), five months ahead of the rest of the U.S.A.

Since my last update was only ten days ago, I only have a couple of new items, but they're worth mentioning. Since the last update, the FCC's involvement has reached the saturation level, as this Multichannel News article demonstrates. With their increasing involvement in many facets of area daily life (such as information booths in farmers' markets in all five affected counties), it's clear the FCC is going all out to insure that nothing goes wrong. It's interesting that the linked article concludes with a quote from an engineer at the local at the local PBS affiliate mentioning something that's occurred to me as well (and which I dealt with last time) - there's no way this level of special attention can be lavished on the other 200-plus TV markets in the run up to Feb '09.

The other piece of news is that four of the participating stations will be participating in a "soft test" on August 19th (i.e. tomorrow), where they will replace their usual analog signal for one minute with a screen letting people know that they need to take action soon in order to continue getting their reception. However, if I read the linked article correctly, they could end up with the situation that occurred when KING in Seattle ran the same test - analog viewers hooked up to cable or satellite got the message when in fact they will be taken care of by their provider, at least for awhile after the transition (link via Engadget HD).

Well, we'll know more about what actually happened with that when we return next week with the two-weeks-out update.

Friday, August 08, 2008

What's Up In Wilmington? It's Now Just ONE Month to the Transition Test.

Today is August 8th, which means that there is only one month remaining until Wilmington, N.C. becomes the first TV market in the country to run a full test (other than the PBS affiliate and one low-power station) of the digital transition. It's also been three months since that was announced, and covered just about everywhere. So what's happened in the last month?

The theme for the last month has been one of increasing involvement of both government and other organizations such as the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) and the National Broadcasters Association (NAB) in order to make sure that things work. The clear leader in local media coverage of this story has been NBC affiliate WECT, which has been churning out "Big Switch Minute" videos every couple of days (covering various local events, answering viewer questions and providing tutorials) - you can check out a whole page of them here.

For text coverage of what's been going on, station WWAY has a number of stories on their website, reporting that the FCC will be visiting various Pender County locations (libraries and farmer's markets) throughout most of August, and recently held DTV Coupon Days at various Wilmington locations in July. They also report that local African American churches dispensed information to their congregations during DTV Sunday (July 27th), and that some of the companies that make converter boxes donated some boxes to the Wilmington senior center to assist the center's efforts to help transition elderly residents in long-term care facilities (this story was also covered by TWICE). In their most-recent switch-related piece, it was revealed that over 50,000 converter box coupons have been distributed in the Wilmington market (we'll assume that at least some of the extra is accounted forby multi-set homes and cable/satellite customers with an additional analog set).

Just from looking at their websites, you'd have to conclude that the TV stations actually have given more coverage to this story than The Star News, the area's leading newspaper, although they did supplement their earlier coverage with this July 17th update (which revealed that unprepared viewers will see an informational message instead of snow for about a month after the switch), and a personal testimony from a staffer who recently acquired his own converter boxes.

And there are some interesting facts that don't seem to have made the local media at all - as this TV Newsday piece reports, representatives of all the participating stations have a conference call every Tuesday morning at 8:30 with FCC and NAB officials, a 30-minute special on the transition has aired twice on all participating stations, the NAB will be bringing an information truck to various events beginning Aug 25th (such as a DTV Expo in downtown Wilmington on Aug 28th) and the FCC has plastered the town with billboards. Also, Bob Barker (who has been signed to do some DTV PSAs) is doing a special one just for Wilmington.

So all in all, it looks like Wilmington's over-the-air audience is probably pretty well informed at this point. While all of this special attention is certainly good news for those people, it raises some questions as to Wilmington's value as a predictor of what will happen with the general transition come February. While your town and mine will get the ads (and I've already seen one FCC billboard), how many places can government and industry officials go to on a regular basis, how many stations can get them on the phone weekly? And while it's a great idea that I hope will see wider use, I've yet to hear of any other places where analog viewers on The Day will see a message telling them what just happened and what they can do about it, as opposed to a screenful of snow. So let's not assume that things will go as smoothly everywhere else as they seem likely to here.

And that's how things look one month out. If there's enough new info to justify it, I might inaugurate a weekly countdown on the 18th (three weeks out). I certainly will write something at some point before 9/8. See you then!